“Don’t hurt me.”
The first time my child said this to me, we were at Target. I’d just told her to put a box of something or other back, and she stared up at me with these huge, innocent blue eyes and whispered it in a low, sad voice. It shattered me. I swept her up into my arms and hugged her tight. “I would never,” I said. “I would never hurt you.”
The thing is that my kid is a liar. She’s two and a half, and she’s clever, and like all kids that age she is old enough to manipulate the people around her but she’s not old enough to have developed a sense of morality yet. I don’t know where she picked up this particular phrase. Adventure Time, maybe. Or Babar. Or from some other kid at play group. It doesn’t really matter where she learned it; what matters is she doesn’t really know what it means. When my kid says not to hurt her, what she’s really saying is I don’t like this, why are you taking that dangerous thing away from me, don’t turn off my tv show! It’s not about physical injury. She’s not scared of me. It’s a prelude to a tantrum; a baby’s feint. I know this, I do.
My reaction to her words has less to do with her and more to do with how I, at nearly thirty years old, am still making peace with how I grew up. My kid is experiencing a very different kind of childhood than I did. “Don’t hurt me,” she says, and specters of my childhood creep up: I’m twelve, and my drunk mother is throwing plates at me. I’m ten, and my mother is driving drunk with me in the car. I’m sixteen, and my father slaps me hard across the face—not once, but four times in quick succession. I’m thirteen, and my mother paws at me like a sedated bear in a drunken stupor while I try to pull her out of the bathroom during yet another botched suicide attempt. My kid tells me not to hurt her, and all I can think about is the sad resignation I lived with for so long, that knowledge that the people you should be able to trust can and will hurt you. That your place is to bear it, to live through it, until you can finally get away.
My child doesn’t know about terror. She has not two, but three adoring and doting parents. She is protected and loved and cherished, and our home is safe and stable and decidedly non-violent. Her father, who himself had a wonderful and loving childhood, sometimes has to translate our daughter’s words for me. “Don’t hurt me,” she says, and he watches my face fall. “No, no,” he says, “she’s not scared of you! She’s not! I promise!”
But how could he know? I am a psychologist by training. I know the literature; I know that abuse is cyclical, that abused kids often turn into abusive parents. It feels so fatalistic sometimes. I also know I’m not my parents—I am not an alcoholic, I work intentionally and authentically on my mental health. In the parlance of the small, poor Texas town in which I grew up, I have my shit together. Or, at least I think I do. I am perpetually afraid to let my guard down. I am afraid that if I don’t watch myself like a hawk I will turn into my parents, and I will hurt her—on purpose, with full knowledge of what I’m doing, in some kind of sick power-play. I love her so much that I’m scared to trust myself. It’s unreasonable, this lack of trust. It’s a scar from my own childhood, where I spent so much time apologizing for my parents’ behavior. It’s their mistakes I bear like a cross, now, and not my own. But these scars run deep, and they are hard to eradicate.
“Try not to take it personally,” her dad says. “She says it to me, too.” But hearing those words from her mouth dredge up in me a visceral, PTSD-like physical memory of the abuse I survived. I wonder, sometimes, how she and I will talk about her childhood when she’s grown. Her experience—solidly middle-class in a nurturing and attentive family—is so different from mine. I know, logically, that she’s telling me not to hurt her precisely because she doesn’t really know what being hurt by her parents means. I also know that it’s hard for survivors to articulate our pasts to those who haven’t lived through similar ones.
“Don’t hurt me,” she says, like my own personal nightmare.
“I would never. I would never hurt you,” I tell her, holding her close. And it’s a promise to her, and it’s a promise to myself. A way to reassure her and to keep myself sane. She is safe with me, not safe from me.